As many of you undoubtedly saw in the news this past week, militants of the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) destroyed priceless Mesopotamian statues and artifacts in the Mosul museum and burned thousands of documents dating back centuries. In a video documenting the rampage, ISIS claimed that such historical treasures promoted idolatry and therefore had to be destroyed. This recalled for me the apocryphal words of the Caliph Omar in burning the Library of Alexandria while establishing the first caliphate: “If these books agree with the Koran, they are useless; if they disagree, they are pernicious: in either case, they ought to be destroyed.”
Such words take on new urgency after ISIS’s actions, but it’s important to remember that this ancient tradition of Islamic indifference to culture is clearly false and not meant to be taken literally. The Library of Alexandria ceased to exist centuries before Islam, the first Library destroyed by fire during the Roman conquest, and the last destroyed by Christians for its association with worship of the idol Serapis. The Omar story was first told by the Arabic writer Abu’l Faraj in the thirteenth century CE (though alluded to by ‘Abd al Latif earlier) and has been proverbial ever since, appearing in Abu’l Fida a century later and Al-Maqrizi a century after that. All of these men were writing books that agreed with the Qur’an, and they obviously did not feel their works worthy only for the pyre.
The actions of ISIS in establishing their presumed new caliphate earned condemnation around the world, but in postings I saw on Facebook and other social media, some who view the West as being in a war with Islam seized upon verses of the Qur’an to suggest that Islam is somehow unique in vandalizing ancient treasures in the name of preventing idolatry. Fortunately, I haven’t seen any mainstream pundits repeating the claim, which is a rarity in today’s internet-driven echo chamber. Their citation of the Qur’anic story, though, did lead me to some interesting texts about the monotheistic tradition of smashing idols.
The relevant text is found in the Qur’an at 21:51-71. In the passage, Abraham announces his intention to destroy the idols worshiped by his father and the people of Ur instead of Allah:
52. Remember when he said unto his father, and his people, “What are these images, to which ye are so entirely devoted?” 53. They answered, “We found our fathers worshipping them.” 54. He said, “Verily both ye and your fathers have been in a manifest error.” 55. They said, “Dost thou seriously tell us the truth, or art thou one who jestest with us?” 56. He replied, “Verily your LORD is the LORD of the heavens and the earth; it is he who hath created them: and I am one of those who bear witness thereof. 57. By GOD, I will surely devise a plot against your idols, after ye shall have retired from them, and shall have turned your backs.” 58. And in the people’s absence he went into the temple where the idols stood, and he brake them all in pieces, except the biggest of them; that they might lay the blame upon that. 59. And when they were returned, and saw the havoc which had been made, they said, “Who hath done this to our gods? He is certainly an impious person.” (trans. George Sale)
The remainder of the passage tells how the idol-worshipers tried to burn Abraham alive, but the fires would not scorch him. Later, at 21:98, the Qur’an makes plan that idol-worship will condemn a soul to hell: “Verily both ye, O men of Mecca, and the idols which ye worship besides GOD, shall be cast as fuel into hell fire: ye shall go down into the same.” (Cf. Jonah 2:8.)
But what’s interesting is that hatred of idols is a common heritage of all the Abrahamic religions, and can be found in the traditions of Judaism and Christianity as much as Islam, and often directed against the very Mesopotamian idols ISIS destroyed. For example, a very similar story about Abraham occurs in Chapter 38 of the Genesis Rabbah, a collection of Jewish lore of uncertain Late Antique or early medieval date: “He took a stick and broke all the images except the largest one, in the hand of which he placed the stick which had worked this wholesale destruction.” This story (or an oral version of it) is likely the source for the Qur’an’s account, though some Muslims have gone to great lengths to deny that this is the case.
The Bible itself is full of condemnations of idols and idolatry. Exodus 20:3-4 commands the Israelites to forgo any idols, and the Golden Calf hardly comes in for praise. In Exodus 32:20, Moses smashes the Golden Calf, grinds it to dust, mixes it with water, and forces the Israelites to drink their false god. The Bible praises those who smash the idols, like Hezekiah in 2 Kings 18:3-4, where he “did right in the sight of the Lord” by smashing a serpent idol. God himself even destroys the idol of Dagon in 1 Samuel 5:1-5.
Outside the accepted canon of scripture, we find similar stories to the account in the Qur’an. In Chapter 12 of the Book of Jubilees, Abraham implores his father to give up idol worship, and in his monotheistic zeal, he “arose by night, and burned the house of the idols, and he burned all that was in the house and no man knew it” (12:12, trans. R. H. Charles). This would seem to be the precedent for the later story in the Genesis Rabbah and the Qur’an.
In the fourth part of the sixth-century Book of the Cave of Treasures, a Christian text, the author asserts that Satan lives in idols and pretends to be pagan gods. God, the author said, destroyed these idols:
And in the one hundredth year of the life of Nâhôr, when God saw that the children of men were sacrificing their Sons to devils, and worshipping idols, He opened the storehouses of the wind, and the gate of the whirlwind, and a blast of wind went forth in all the earth. And it uprooted the images, and the places where offerings were made to devils, and it swept together the idols, and the images, and the pillared buildings in a heap, and piled up great mounds [of earth] over them; [and they are there] to this day. (trans. Budge)
That’s a pretty clear message that idols deserve to be smashed. Oh, and the wind? That parallels the wind said to carry off impotent idols in Isaiah 57:13: “When you cry out for help, let your collection of idols save you! The wind will carry all of them off, a mere breath will blow them away” (NIV).
The medieval Ethiopian Kebra Nagast tells in Chapter 12 that Abraham came to monotheism through the destruction of his own idols, probably a reflex of the Genesis Rabbah story: “And he buffeted the face of one, and kicked another with his feet, and a third he knocked over and broke to pieces with stones, and he said unto them, ‘If ye are unable to save yourselves from him that buffeteth you, and ye cannot requite with injury him that injureth you, how can ye be called “gods”?’” (trans. Budge).
The fact is, since the rise of monotheism nearly everyone smashes idols. (Polytheists were a mixed lot, just as likely to capture an idol and take it home as to destroy it.) The Byzantine iconoclasts and Protestant reformers both attacked Christian imagery, destroying statues and icons for violating God’s commandment. Charlemagne legislated the destruction of Germanic pagan sanctuaries. The Spanish obliterated the idols of the Mexicans and Peruvians during the Conquest of the New World. Francisco Burgoa tells in his Geographica descripcion de la America setentrional, Chapter 28, how a missionary destroyed a Mixtec idol made of nearly priceless translucent green stone by following the example of Moses, grinding it to dust, mixing it with water, pouring it onto the earth, and stomping on it to show that the Mixtec gods were powerless. Two centuries after that, the Revolutionary French smashed the stained glass images of Jesus and the saints to demonstrate the triumph of reason over religion. Two centuries later, the peoples of Eastern Europe tore down the statues of Lenin and Stalin and broke them into pieces to symbolize the destruction of Communist ideology. Early in this century, the Taliban infamously destroyed medieval statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan.
The difference, though, is that the idols that past groups desecrated had behind them the power of belief. They were dangerous because someone believed in them. By contrast, aside from a few followers of Zecharia Sitchin’s version of the ancient astronaut theory, no one believes in the Mesopotamian gods. Their power is gone, their idols merely art. When ISIS claims that they are acting in the name of ending idolatry, they lie since and idol must have worshipers. Without them, it is just a statue.
3/1/2015 07:01:23 am
In the 21st century, the new idolatry is not so much old relics, but silly stuff, power, entertainment and love on money, sex and power. It is our obsession with Facebook and social media, our fix of ancient aliens and bigfoot, zombies or ghosts, and stuff like that. We no longer cling to gods in the old sense, but in false versions of gods via things we've become obsessed with.
3/1/2015 07:28:37 am
The Egyptian Pharaohs and Roman Emperors also destroyed images and monuments of predecessors they wanted to erase. Early Christians destroyed lots of Pagan statues.
3/1/2015 07:49:38 am
Funny thing, Christianity originally built churches over pagan shrines it had demolished - demonstrating the vanquishing of paganism. Today's New Agers see the exact opposite - Christianity built its churches over pagan shrines because they were divine sources of spirituality, and the New Agers regard such sites as initiation portals.
3/1/2015 08:48:47 am
Perhaps this is a byproduct of humans rejecting human form or animal gods. I coukd see how human form gods would be hated much as we hate or dislike other humans, our bosses, those with other political views, people who are more successful or happy or have power over us. Maybe the war on human gods is the natural dislike of elites. A non human God who is just seems more attractive than human or animal form gods who favor the ruling class. Just a thought.
3/1/2015 09:23:08 am
"When ISIS claims that they are acting in the name of ending idolatry, they lie since and idol must have worshipers. Without them, it is just a statue."
3/1/2015 09:30:09 am
Carpet bomb ISIS. Unironically.
3/1/2015 10:20:11 am
I would lthink the combined armies of turkey, Jordan, Saudi , armed with billions in high tech us weapons and decades of training can take on less than one total division of lightly armed ISIL spread over about a thousand square mikes. Turkey alone had almost 10x as many troops. Our allies need to learn how to fight.
3/1/2015 12:40:31 pm
You just need the right man for the job, to control that hell hole of a region. Unfortunately, the right man for the job was Saddam Hussein... and he's dead.
3/1/2015 05:15:21 pm
It's not about knowing how to fight, it's about knowing how to win. ISIS' greatest weapon is that they are able to offer security and stability to a sufficiently large enough population to maintain integrity.
3/1/2015 05:08:22 pm
Carpet bombing is inefficient and sloppy. This is why precision weapons exist.
3/2/2015 03:38:20 am
I'd rather be safe than sorry with these people, to be honest.
3/2/2015 10:12:44 am
The problem is we are being too precise - taking out antennae arrays instead of whole buildings. Sometimes large area of effect weapons are more effective at demonstrating our intent and resolve.
3/1/2015 11:02:39 am
Sad thing, but it has happened before. Two real problems, as I see it, the destroyed items and records are truly irreplaceable. Now they are gone forever and unavailable for future generations...and for no real purpose. Second, these items and records are truly treasures of the world, not of one single political or religious entity. They should have seen themselves as the caretakers of these records and artifacts and acted as such.
3/1/2015 11:14:50 am
"I remember that his first question concerned the centuries-old Buddha statues that were dynamited by the Taliban in March of that year, shortly before our encounter. Two Taliban combatants from Kandahar confidently responded that worshiping anything outside of Islam was unacceptable and that therefore these statues had to be destroyed. My brother looked at them and said, this time in Pashto, 'There are still many sun-worshippers in this country. Will you also try to get rid of the sun and drop darkness over the Earth?'"
3/1/2015 11:32:57 am
Nothing to do with this topic, but I was horrified to find the following article in my local paper today, and couldn't think of a better place to share it than this blog: http://www.berkshireeagle.com/news/ci_27620258/encounter-ufo-is-now-part-history
3/1/2015 11:52:57 am
And the video accompanying the story:
3/1/2015 12:35:33 pm
"We believe that it is true... a significant and true event." Oh, my. That's bizarre. I'll grant you that it's an important part of local folklore, but to say that it is literally "true" is wacky.
3/1/2015 12:39:06 pm
But *what* is supposed to be true? That something caused these people to have these experiences? Because that's trivial.
3/2/2015 08:12:04 am
It seems like a generally bad idea for historical societies to get into the business of certifying the truth of paranormal claims.
3/1/2015 01:07:45 pm
Jesus Christ, if the title of this post didn't remind me about the Isis video, I would have reflexively called that the worst news item I've seen this week.
3/1/2015 01:23:15 pm
Oh, hell. I guess I was wrong to err on the side of charity.
3/1/2015 01:36:47 pm
This is particularly bad because if they can get away with it, then every other historical society that's strapped for cash is going to do the same to their local abductee/bigfoot/haunting/monster.
3/2/2015 03:20:17 am
As I see it, old idols show that the claims of the Abrahamic religions to be the only 'true' religion from day 1 are a load of horseshit. Those old idols must be destroyed so that a new false 'history' of religion can replace it.
3/2/2015 05:11:51 am
Idol smashing in the ancient world is a very early version of what we today call "Stalinism." Either way, its a practice I personally find to be incredibly primitive. By comparison, apes are more civilized.
3/2/2015 05:16:49 am
Stalinism? That's strangely... specific... I'm curious how you'd define "Stalinism"...
3/2/2015 08:06:20 am
I don't think Stalin went around destroying Churches or Church related art work. Lenin...and Troytsky..maybe (Troytsky was a nut job big time, his invasion of Poland to some extent ensured the German invasion to start WWII. Pol Pot..I think he did destroy historical artifacts in Cambodia..but nothing compared to the Taliban..
3/2/2015 09:26:43 am
Yes, Stalin totally did it. Quite a lot, actually.
3/2/2015 07:57:34 am
I'd describe it (in part) as flushing one's own history down the memory hole at the behest of a dictatorial power.
3/2/2015 08:54:13 am
Maybe if there were space aliens, they could give ISIS the anal probe.
3/2/2015 09:28:11 am
"If a whole coalition of nation states bands together to stop them, not just the US, then they would be gone."
3/2/2015 01:27:37 pm
It now appears that much of what was destroyed by ISIS are not the originals but rather plaster reproductions, some of them rather cheaply made. The key clue to determine that the artworks were reproductions was the presence of iron bars inside of the plaster reproductions, something that would not be present in the originals. Also, the "stone" statues were rather easily crushed in several of the videos, something that indicated cheap plaster repros, not originals.
3/2/2015 01:36:10 pm
Oh, that's old news, I thought. ISIS probably sold a lot of the originals, which is one of their main sources of income.
3/2/2015 01:43:56 pm
Actually, its believed that the joke was on ISIS, as most of the originals are in the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad.
3/2/2015 02:16:47 pm
What about the manuscripts? I doubt they had replicas of those...
3/3/2015 02:43:13 am
didn't "Shock & Awe" under the "W" result in looted museums?
3/3/2015 03:07:54 am
This is a better discussion of the damage, and yes there was damage. While some are clearly plaster fakes, some are clearly not
3/20/2015 03:33:13 pm
I used to come here and read comments because quite frankly I actually enjoyed some of the snarky comments from the regulars. But talk of carpet bombing and killing is really disturbing to me. Those guys in IS, or ISIL, are completely out to lunch, but we in the US did a lot to help create that god damned mess out there. And if you really want to dig deep it is nothing but the continuation of the god damned crusades. I'm a former soldier, I did combat duty in Iraq so yeah although I didn't realize it at the time, I was part of the problem. I'm thinking we need to divest ourselves of the whole situation. Pull the fsk out of the middle east, tell everyone out there we just ain't into crusading any more and let them folks sort their own mess out. It's sad what's happening, but assholes (because on this I'm very serious: if you are hawkish about killing folk, and you ain't never put your life on the line to know what it is like to come close to losing your life to the fucking war machine, then you are a fsking @$$hole) need to stop armchair generaling a fucking war effort. I'm not sending any of my children to that shithole, I left a huge piece of myself out in that god forsaken shitland of sand, and I'm tired of the god damned expectation that America needs to be the god damned world police.
4/13/2015 01:03:04 pm
When Isis destroy ancient monuments, it’s not always true that ‘people are more important’
4/13/2015 04:39:44 pm
The pulpit is elsewhere.
Rev. Gopi Chari
6/15/2017 05:53:31 pm
Abraham destroyed idols in his father's shop and this had a devastating effect on humanity over the years. This idea had effect on Mesopotamia, Egypt and Babylonia. Christians (Romans) called anyone they did not like, pagans and destroyed them. Islam killed millions of people in the name of destroying idols. Vey little known is the history of Central Asia where peaceful religion called Buddhism was eradicated. The same thing happened in India (Example: Nalanda University in 1193 by Khiljis). There are not many old relics left in these two areas. The estimate of human loss is around 300 million people that Islam butchered! ISIS is not new in their history.
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